'Theatre for social change'
Middle school can be a tough time to navigate changing friendships.
Tim Hofmann, principal at Cottage Grove Middle School, said most disciplinary problems his office has dealt with in recent years stem from conflicts between friends.
"We started pulling data about when we're seeing students, what we're seeing with counselors and social workers," Hofmann said. "It was off the charts for the last couple years that the issues females were having in our building were relational issues about friendships."
Kids that age, he said, don't always know how to handle the larger number of classmates, introduction of new friends and older friendships drifting apart.
These are the the kind of everyday issues CLIMB Theatre of Inver Grove Heights aims to tackle through its mobile programming.
The program started more than 40 years ago as a way to bring the theatre experience to people who would otherwise have limited access to certain spaces before the Americans with Disabilities Act became law in 1990.
The group's "theatre backwards" model, which brings creative environments to audiences, has since grown to help people incorporate the medium into their everyday routines.
CLIMB Actor Educator Grace Weiner calls it "Theatre for social change."
She and fellow actor educator Nikki Tuttle recently worked with seventh grade girls at Cottage Grove to develop skills for dealing with issues like bullying, cliques and healthy responses to friendship conflicts through role playing scenes and theatre games.
In one activity, Tuttle and Weiner staged a scene inviting girls to practice how they would respond when they witness bullying.
"We create a safe learning environment for them to try — and fail, which they usually do," Weiner said. "Then we learn from it. They can see and experience that coming back with anger and aggression fuels the fire."
CLIMB actors have performed plays at the school before, but Hoffman said working in smaller groups that break the fourth wall, like those Tuttle and Weiner led, tend to better engage his students.
"It hit the audience that was willing to receive it, but it was missing the mark on a lot of kids," Hofmann said. "For me, the ones that probably needed to get the message the most were the ones who weren't paying that much attention."
CLIMB's team worked with Hofmann to develop programming customized to his students' needs.
Each activity, Tuttle said, welcomes students to participate at whatever level is comfortable — as long as it's respectful.
"We try to establish at the beginning that we can sit here and be bored, or we can get up and have fun," Tuttle said. "We like to initiate that we're going to be weird, so you're allowed to be weird."
The initial small group sessions focused mainly on seventh grade girls, Hoffman said, to allow more vulnerability among participants.
Although boys, he said, tend to deal with conflict differently than girls, Hoffman sees future opportunities to introduce a program specifically for issues male students face.
CLIMB Theatre offers classes and customized programming for all age groups to tackle a variety of education needs.